2012, Pete Travis - DVD
(Countdown to The World's End, Day 2)
I realized while watching "Mega City Masters" -- a supplemental bonus on the DVD that briskly grazes over the creation and continued endurance of the character of Judge Dredd in comics, by way of a series of talking heads with some of the more prominent writers and artists of the character -- that I know jack shit about Judge Dredd when it really comes right down to it. My total exposure to the character was the Batman team-ups in the 90's and the first issue of the short-lived DC Comics series (I've attempted to purge all recollection of the Stallone-starring adaptation).
Through one of those Batman team-ups, the one rendered rather seductively by Simon Bisley (edit: "Batman/Judge Dredd: Judgement on Gotham" circa 1991), I came to know of Judge Death, Judge Anderson and Mega City One, but I didn't know the characters or the types of stories they came from, and I haven't been terribly curious to find out, despite the character being one of the (if not the) most popular British comic book creations. So this new Dredd film was never high on my priority list when the film was being made or upon release. It performed poorly at the box office but word of mouth told a different story, which I guess had me curious. Not curious enough to rush out and see it or buy it or rent it (it came to me by way of a free Redbox promotional rental), but it was on the list based on certain recommendations (David's review is here).
I agree with David's comparison that it's like The Raid: Redemption (Graig's, David's), in that it's a couple of cops trapped in a high-rise apartment building totally controlled by drug dealers and having to stay alive, and if possible take down the head. They are, in story and tone, pretty much the exact same feature. It's a formula that has seen countless iterations since Die Hard (or even the Towering Inferno before that), a rather sizeable confined space and a struggle for survival. My wife chimed in that there was a bit of a "dungeon crawl" element to it (referring to the Dungeons and Dragons-style of role-play storytelling, as if you didn't know) which I would also agree with.
Writer Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later) also adds in facets of the Gauntlet (where cops are protecting a witness through a field of opposition) and, servicing the characters, a trial-by-fire training day scenario for Dredd's new partner, the young mutant Judge Anderson (whose psychic powers allowed her to squeak through the preliminary testing, despite having marginally failed). It's all a very comfortably familiar movie, with not a lot of surprises in the way of characterization or story, but it's in the larger environment and the artistic sensibility the film stands out.
Using this sort of story-mashing from within the action and cop genres gives a very robust skeleton to pile the world of Dredd meat on top of. It allows for Mega City One to exist, but on a budget, it's economy in working in a confined environment allows for more involvement of "future technology" without it having to be omni-present. The environment of an apartment complex (even one that housed 75,000 residents and is 200 stories tall) allows the world of Mega City One (a futuristic cityscape spanning from ex Washington DC to Boston IIRC) to be exhibited in a microcosmos. It's all an effective way of presenting Dredd on screen but without the Hollywood mega-budget.
Director Travis doles out a very specific vision for his feature, which quite literally pulls no punches. It's a hyper-violent feature where instead of buckets of blood gore-effects enthusiasts are treated to plenty of images of scattered chunks of flesh. There's a B-movie or grindhouse influence at play here, never once pretending to be a conventional Hollywood blockbuster. Travis' use of the POV camera, particularly when characters are on the drug SLO-MO, is kind of hypnotic and beautiful, were it not so smeared with grime and filth.
The primary cast is solid, with Karl Urban embracing the role of Dredd wholeheartedly, keeping the perpetual scowl peeking out from beneath his visor the entire time, as well as bravely keeping that helmet on the entire movie... it's hard for an actor not to use their eyes in a performance, thankfully Urban understood Dredd's one-dimensional character, and never pushed him beyond that. Game of Thrones star Lena Headey seems to thoroughly enjoy the unglamorous, scarred, rotting teethe drug kingpin role of Ma-Ma, soaking up screen time with some gruesome mugging. I adored Olivia Thirlby as Anderson, getting completely right the notes of fear and unpreparedness, but also never betraying that the character has had training and has some level of competency. Nobody in this movie is a superhero (though a couple scenes, like Dredd outrunning some insanely powerful machine guns hit incredulous levels) despite it's origins...
It's not for everyone, but those that like their action films loud, violent and extremely bloody, but also well made and with interesting sci-fi concepts... it's happening here, quite nicely.